Monday, 30 January 2012

Unionist Unity: What is the point?

I imagine it won’t be long before David McNarry’s resignation from the UUP Assembly Group is followed by David McNarry’s resignation from the UUP itself and his subsequent joining of the DUP.  It’s not exactly a bold prediction though, given that McNarry has long argued the case for Unionist Unity and closer working relationships with the DUP. His recent disclosure of the details of meetings on the issue have led to him being disciplined by his party leader, Tom Elliot, which in turn prompted McNarry’s resignation.

Some commentators have argued that it was wrong for Elliot to discipline McNarry for being honest and transparent about things but they completely miss the point – some things are, quite rightly, discussed behind closed doors else media perceptions cloud decisions. These are most likely the same commentators that have criticised Elliot and the UUP for being unwilling to discipline in the past.

Anyway, I could care little about either McNarry or the UUP’s internal disciplinary process. What does concern me is that no one seems to be asking what on earth the point of unity is? I’m not just talking about Unionist Unity but unity on the whole, in political terms. In politics, you exist as a party to offer an alternative, to offer choice to the electorate. If you’re prepared to declare yourself close enough to another party so that voters need not worry about which party represents them, as long as it’s you or your partners, then there’s no point to your existence. At this juncture you should forget about pacts and deals and just combine wholesale.

Ultimately, this is what the talk of Unionist Unity is about. For the most part, the DUP and the UUP are not all that different. If you listen to those within the UUP who object to any proposed pacts the complaints are nearly always to do with personalities, or the bad blood between the parties, or the performance of the parties. Often those opposed point to polling to show that the electorate won’t endorse a big Unionist party whilst their opponents produce their own polling to show that the electorate actually want closer cooperation. At no point do you hear the representatives on either side argue for or against based on policy.

Ask the average voter to outline the major differences between UUP & DUP policy on Education, Health, DETI etc and they’ll struggle. Not sometimes – every time. What they will happily tell you is that the DUP is the more hard-line of the two main unionist parties while the UUP is more of a broad church (I think they can safely trademark that term by now) and takes an ever so slightly softer, considered approach to most issues. It’s nonsense of course, because there are no shortage of hard-liners in the UUP and mostly the two parties vote along strikingly similar lines in the Assembly. If you’re not even getting any purchase on the perceived differences then why bother voting one way or the other at all?

So surely this argues the case for unity? Well, yes, provided by unity we mean the UUP being absorbed completely into the DUP. Anything else is just a plain electoral carve up with one objective – keeping the other side out of office. I’m personally against that because I think the Unionist community needs two parties right now – 1 to provide governance and one to provide opposition. Of course, I’d like to see a move to a time when voters see themselves not as Unionists (or Nationalists) first but we have to deal with the realities of the day. 

We live in a divided society and whilst there is plenty of hard work going into changing that, it’s not going to happen in the very near future so until that time, the UUP has a duty to provide an alternative to the DUP. They need to forget talk of where they can cooperate with the DUP and focus on how they can highlight the differences between the parties. The UUP need to focus on beating the DUP and not on making life easier for them because making life easier for the DUP is ultimately what Unionist Unity is all about.

1 comment:

  1. Just linked to you on FB with the comment: "The good ship UUP is now taking on water in heavy seas and unless it can come up with a good reason for its continued existence it will sink. It is no longer inconceivable that the UUP will no longer exist in 10 years time. Peter Robinson has long harboured a fantasy of becoming the man who reunites Unionism under his leadership, and unless the UUP can come up with a good reason for its continued existence, he may well realise that fantasy. UUP supporters in the blogosphere often cite the tribalism and religious fundamentalism of the DUP as the reason why the UUP needs to exist. In practice, however, the UUP's voting record in the Assembly is just as religiously conservative as the DUP's, it's approach to power-sharing has been more hardline since 2007 and it's not the leader of the DUP who has a problem attending GAA matches, is it?"